Ride-Away's goal: ‘delight and amaze our customers’



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It’s not every business that receives hundreds upon hundreds of unsolicited testimonial letters from satisfied customers. But then Ride-Away Handicap Equipment Corp. of Londonderry isn’t your normal business, and Mark Lore isn’t your typical CEO. “One of the things we teach here is that customer satisfaction isn’t enough. What we strive to do is delight and amaze our customers,” Lore said of his 100 employees who work not only in New Hampshire but in Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland -- with plans to open more offices in Virginia. The “delight and amaze” ethos is one Lore brought to the job when he bought the struggling company in 1986. “It had always been my goal to do something special in my career -- to create a business that was a financial success and to do something good that makes a real difference in people’s lives,” he said. Lore started out with an unfocused and under-capitalized company of two employees and has nurtured its growth into the nation’s leading modifier of vehicles for people with disabilities. Ride-Away’s sales have grown from $250,000 in 1986 to more than $30 million in 2003; its vehicles can be found in more than 20 states and 15 countries throughout the world. Notable Ride-Away clients include actor Christopher Reeve and former Boston University hockey player Travis Roy. “I used to be a one-man show, and in many ways I was the role model for everyone,” said Lore about his and Ride-Away’s journey. “Today we are better off because I’m surrounded by people who outwork and outthink me.” The hard work and smarts have combined to create a one-stop shop for customers who can work out everything from picking a vehicle to financing. Employee turnover, Lore said, is almost non-existent -- and beyond work, two-thirds of Ride-Away workers are involved with non-profit organizations. “We give time and money and pay our employees to be involved because we’ve seen and experienced how much a difference these efforts make in people’s lives.” Ride-Away’s 40 technicians modify vehicles of all types - prices range from about $1,000 up to $80,000 -- and these modifications can be as basic as installing lowered floors for wheelchair access to the most sophisticated high-tech gear imaginable. ‘Amazing’ service As he gave a tour of Ride-Away’s new 30,000-square-foot facility at the industrial park near the Manchester Airport, Lore explains how joysticks and voice recognition software can provide such necessary controls for gas, brakes, steering, turn signals and windshield wipers. But while Lore admitted that “technology is the sexy part of our business,” it’s the human element that make it remarkable. One of the new vans undergoing modifications includes controls sensitive to shoulder gestures. The $52,000 Dodge van is for Janet Zeller of Dunbarton, a quadriplegic and a national program director for U.S. Forest Service, who says these modified, incredibly complex vehicles are nothing less than a “freedom machine” for her. Zeller is partial to Ride -- she worked as one of the company’s first salespeople back when it was struggling in the late 1980s. But, she said, Ride-Away treats her and every customer the same - providing “amazing” service with an attention to custom detail such as “magic wiring” that continues to surprise her. Zeller’s first vehicle was a modified car, but when she graduated to a motorized wheelchair she needed a van. Zeller says it’s the key to her employment and the key to a higher quality of life. “I can drive my grandchildren to school if I want. If I didn’t have this vehicle, I’d be stuck here and have to hire a special service. (Instead) today is an exciting day,” said Zeller a few hours before picking up her new vehicle. Paul Boynton, president and CEO of Moore Center Services in Manchester, oversees 12 area agencies that serve disabled people in the greater Manchester area. Boynton said the what Ride-Away does better than any company is that it reflects Lore’s “personal belief in giving something back to the community,” and that includes vehicle donations and at-cost deals. And what this means to potential customers -- the disabled and their families -- is nothing less that life-altering. “Mark understands that it’s really about independence because in our culture mobility is where our sense of independence comes from. Imagine what it would be like not to have it,” Boynton said. Very young industry Ride-Away’s current prominence in the industry has not come easily. Despite a heightened cultural awareness of disabled rights due to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the growth of vocational rehabilitation programs, during the recession and banking crisis years of 1989 to 1992, Lore said Ride-Away was severely under-capitalized because the company was not attractive “to bankers with weak stomachs ... we couldn’t be easily categorized, not really a small business and not real big. They treated us like a car dealer, but that’s not exactly what we are. Borrowing money wasn’t easy.” U.S. Small Business Administration loans were instrumental in helping the company survive and grow, and in 1999 Lore hooked up with Citizens Bank. “Lending to a company like Ride-Away is a risk because they don’t have good collateral,” said Gary Hatfield, vice president of middle market lending at Citizens Bank in Manchester. But Ride-Away is unique and a good lending bet, Hatfield explained, “not only because they are financially successful but due to their deep commitment to helping the handicapped. They give so much back to the community.” Citizens has provided capital for the company’s expansion of stores in Maine and Maryland and its recent move to a new facility. Lore said he’s discovered that doing the right thing isn’t easy in a business culture dominated by cost concerns. Ride-Away, in fact, has its own “Ten Commandments,” and not one mentions the bottom line. “We absolutely don’t cut any corners; not with our people, not with our products, not with our customers. But we’ve proved you can do the right thing and be a real, successful business,” he said. And Lore said he believes that the best days for his company and the industry are ahead. “We are still a very young industry, and we’ve not been able to get the word out through mass marketing. It used to be that only the wealthiest could afford what we are doing today, but the market is going to make this equipment more accessible and help even more people.” The Citizens Bank Not Your Typical Business Award is presented in partnership with New Hampshire Business Review. Businesses are selected each month based on the company’s commitment to community, colleagues and customers. Visit Citizens Bank online at www.citizensbank.com.

 

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